Today’s guest post comes from my good friend, Matt Stromberg. Matt and I met at Biblical Seminary. Matt has since transferred to the Trinity Episcopal School of Ministry in Pittsburgh, where he will continue his pursuit of ordination. You can check out his blog here.
Last summer I was reminded—rather dramatically—of both the goodness and joy of life and also its fragility. In July I experienced the joy of being joined in marriage to my wife April and the blessings of beginning a life together. Pronouncing my vow to love and cherish April until we are parted by death was particularly sobering to me that day, because as joyful and exuberant as our wedding was, the shadow of death also loomed ominously in my heart.
My oldest brother Tom, who was to be one of my groomsmen, could not attend because he was lying in a hospital bed ravished by AIDS. It was only a little more than a month before the wedding that our family learned Tom had AIDS, and it was only about a month after the wedding that we stood around his bedside holding his hand, praying, and reading him scripture as the flickering flame of his life was finally extinguished.
Although my brother was much older than me, we were very close, and I loved him dearly. I had experienced death before, but never face to face, never someone so close to me and so young. The result was not only grief, but a powerful reminder of mortality and the urgency of knowing God and his son Jesus Christ.
When asked, most people say that the ideal death would be one that happens quietly and unexpected, preferably during sleep. It is confronting our own mortality and coming to terms with death, however, that really teaches us the weight and importance of our life now. I don’t know how my brother contracted HIV, and even he was unaware of his infection until it was too late. I feel pretty certain that, had he known earlier that he was carrying a deadly virus, he would have lived his life much differently.
Ecclesiastes reminds us that the same event happens to everyone who comes into the world, whether we are righteous or wicked, Christian or non-Christian – all of us die. All our accomplishments, all our possessions, all our enjoyment of life’s blessings, come to an end with death. Death is a great leveler. Anything we seek to stand on in this life will be taken away. We should keep this before our mind always.
Although life at times seems like vanity, full of confusion, injustice, and toil, we instinctively feel it is an evil when it is taken away. We know in our bones that we were created for something more and we long for it in our hearts. What we long for is a greater and more enduring life, a life that isn’t futile and failing. Life, even in the midst of hardship, is preferable to death and so we resist death’s encroaching shadow. It is not life that hurts so much but its absence.
AIDS is the invasion of death into life, making even life like death, and finally taking life itself away. A person who is dying from AIDS becomes emaciated; they are rendered immobile, and often cannot even speak. The ties that join them to all the living are severed one by one. We must not sentimentalize death. Despite much pious rhetoric that proclaims death to be a friend and a mere transition, the Bible insists to the contrary. Death is the enemy, a negation of life and all that God created us for. I do not say that as a counsel of despair. I believe we have hope in the face of death that I wish to share with you.
Jesus Christ came to conquer death and to bring a more abundant life. Christ is the antidote for vanity. If AIDS is the invasion of death into life, than Christ is the invasion of life into a dying world. In his book The Divine Conspiracy Dallas Willard gives a wonderful paraphrase of John 3:16, “God’s care for humanity was so great that he sent his unique Son among us, so that those who count on him might not lead a futile and failing existence, but have the undying life of God Himself” (Willard, 1.)
If you are suffering from disease, even AIDS, Jesus can give you life even in the midst of your affliction. He is near to you in a way that no one else could ever be. When Tom was dying I was able to hold his hand, I was able to encourage him and tell him that I loved him, and I was able to pray with him, but it was Christ who suffered with him. It was Christ who bore his sins and even his sickness on the hard wood of the cross. It was Christ who with him was considered cursed and afflicted by God. It was Christ who shared in his sorrows and it was Christ who was able to give him hope and a life that is stronger than dying. Christ defeated death.
Those of us in Christ share in his death, which is in fact the death of death. All who are in Christ also share in the power of his resurrection beginning now but being consummated in the last day when our corruption is swallowed up in incorruption.
People who are afflicted with the AIDS virus know the vanity of this present age. They know what it means to experience the unraveling of God’s good creation and the waxing of life, because they carry it in their own bodies. In fact, we all do, but victims of AIDS and other diseases make that dissolution particularly present to us. May they also carry God’s restoration within them. May they receive the eternal life that Christ offers us in the midst of this futile and failing existence, and may we see the hope of the gospel played out in them. It was a great consolation for me to know that Tom faced death knowing Christ and his victory. His life was not lived in vain.